February 5, 2008

In French Creek, Freddie Holds Forth: Groggy Groundhog Sees Shadow

FRENCH CREEK - For the 30th year in a row, officials at the West Virginia Wildlife Center opened the doors to a man-made groundhog burrow at 10 a.m. sharp on Groundhog Day, giving French Creek Freddie access to his expansive enclosure on a frozen, grassy slope.

A leaden sky parted and a burst of morning sunshine swept across the grounds of the Upshur County facility, where a crowd of nearly 200 people waited for Freddie to appear at the burrow door.

The open door remained vacant only for an instant before Freddie burst through the opening and scurried rapidly toward the crowd, triggering a chorus of delighted giggles from the children in the audience, most of whom had gravitated as close as possible to the enclosure's fence. The portly groundhog paused for an instant, then briskly trotted along the fence line for 30 feet before pausing again to take in the crowd and seemingly reacquaint himself with the features in his pen.

Apparently deciding that he'd spent enough time in the frosty winter air, the groundhog made a high-speed beeline back to his burrow, as the crowd laughed and applauded, some yelling: "He's cold! Let him back in!"

"He definitely saw his shadow," said Rob Silvester, manager of the wildlife center. "According to legend, that means six more weeks of wintry weather."

As Freddie was allowed to return to his burrow, his backup body double, also named Freddie, darted out the door and made a similar high-speed sweep of the enclosure's perimeter.

"We actually have three Freddies," said Silvester. "Two of them are here in the Wildlife Center's exhibit area, and the third stays in a building back up the hill. Life expectancy for groundhogs isn't great - they live three to six years on average - and we'd hate to have a Groundhog's Day event here and not have a live groundhog to star in it."

In all, six groundhogs have played the role of Freddie during the Wildlife Center's 30 years of Groundhog Day appearances.

Only one of the three current resident groundhogs appeared to have hibernated this winter, according to Silvester.

"Normally, when groundhogs are well fed like these guys - they eat a blend of dog food and rabbit food - they won't hibernate," he said. "They never run out of food, so they don't need to shut down to conserve energy. But one of them appeared to be hibernating earlier this week."

Saturday's appearance by Freddie "was a little more energetic than usual," said Silvester. "One year, he just stuck his head out and put it back in."

Freddie failed to see his shadow during his two previous Groundhog Day appearances.

Silvester said Freddie's prognostications are generally accurate. His prediction this year matched that of his more famous cousin in Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney Phil.

Before releasing French Creek Freddie from his burrow, Silvester and a crew of handlers introduced the crowd to the Wildlife Center's first resident fisher, a dark brown, thick furred animal that resembles a large weasel. A species native to West Virginia, the fisher was trapped into extinction in the state, but reintroduced in the late 1960s, and is now holding its own in Canaan Valley and other upland locales.

The West Virginia Wildlife Center displays native and once- native West Virginia wildlife species ranging from bison and elk to otters and groundhogs.

After appearances by the new fisher and the two French Creek Freddies, Groundhog Day celebrants were invited to the Wildlife Center's gift shop for free cookies and cocoa. A selection of souvenir groundhog puppets and French Creek Freddie buttons and postcards was available for purchase.

Many of the Wildlife Center's other animal residents were out in the morning sunshine, including black bears, a mountain lion, gray wolves, foxes, bison, elk, bald and golden eagles and red and gray foxes.

"It was definitely worth the trip," said Brian Bailey of Buckhannon, who took in the event with his children, parents, brother, nephews and nieces. "It was looking really gray and cloudy when we got here at 9:30, so we were all glad when the sun came out just before it was time to see Freddie."

The West Virginia Wildlife Center, open seven days a week year- round, charges no admission during the winter months. Starting April 1, the fee schedule will be $3 for adults and $1.50 for children 3- 15. Wildlife exhibits are located along a 1.25-mile handicap accessible paved trail that winds through a mature hardwood forest. Interpretive signs help visitors learn more about the featured animals. To reach the West Virginia Wildlife Center from Charleston, follow Interstate 79 north to the Flatwoods exit. From the Flatwoods exit, follow U.S. 19/W.Va. 4 north about 30 miles to Rock Cave. At Rock Cave, follow W.Va. 20 two miles north to the entrance to the Wildlife Center. For more information, call 924-6211.